Former Eagles fullback Turner sees hope in fight against ALS

Kevin Turner, a former Eagles fullback, is thankful for support from fans after his ALS diagnosis.
Kevin Turner, a former Eagles fullback, is thankful for support from fans after his ALS diagnosis.
Posted: November 01, 2010

Anyone who ever played with or against fullback Kevin Turner knew he was a good person to have on your side on fourth-and-short. He was a powerful inside runner, on the relatively rare occasions when he was asked to carry the football, and a sure-handed target on checkdown and dumpoff passes. But his primary asset was his willingness and even eagerness to, in the parlance of the sport, to "put his hat on somebody" as a lead blocker.

"He was a battering ram," one of Turner's former Eagles teammates, linebacker Ike Reese, recalled with obvious appreciation. "That's what fullbacks are. Very often they ram themselves into linebackers.

"I remember going up against Kevin in practice. We nicknamed him 'The Anvil' because he brought it every time he took you on as a blocker."

Added defensive end Hugh Douglas, another former Eagles teammate of Turner's: "Kevin always played hard. He was one of the better fullbacks I've seen, at a position that at that time was being phased out of the NFL. He never shied away from the contact."

But hammering other players during his eight seasons in the NFL, the last five of which were spent with the Eagles, and being hammered upon, possibly has exacted a cruel toll on Turner. Last week, the Birmingham, Ala., resident returned from Boston after consulting with a fifth team of neurologists, who confirmed what four others had already told him: The diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, was accurate.

But, this time, Turner has hope, something not commonly found with ALS patients. And Turner is not one to give up without a fight.

He came away from his examination somewhat encouraged that he can beat ALS, to whatever extent it can be beaten. He was evaluated by Dr. Robert Cantu, who recently co-authored a research paper about NFL-related head injuries and is the co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University, an organization that has studied the autopsied brains of more than 20 former NFL players.

"I'm a little disappointed," said Turner, 41, who admits he was hoping for a diagnosis that the ALS symptoms had miraculously vanished. "Dr. Cantu said what I have is definitely some sort of ALS, but it's atypical in that it isn't in my legs yet, only in my thorax and upper extremities. He said usually, by now, there would be some sign of weakness in my legs if this was your classic ALS.

"It's funny - if any of this can be funny - but I was told by another neurologist just 3 weeks ago that what I have is classic ALS. I've been to five different neurologists - three in May and June, two more since then. Dr. Cantu is the only one who offered any kind of hope that this isn't quite as bad as it could be. I take it as a positive."

A spokesperson for Cantu said the doctor was ethically prohibited from discussing Turner's medical condition, citing doctor-patient privilege.

Dr. Leo McCluskey, head of the ALS department at the University of Pennsylvania, confirmed that there are instances where the disease affects mainly the upper body.

Turner is scheduled to see another doctor today in Washington.

"I'm very happy it's not in my legs, and I certainly hope it stays that way," Turner said. "But there are no guarantees. I've read that there are some ALS patients who have it stop in their upper body. If I'm one of those, that would be great. I'm not down one bit. I'm still very optimistic I'm going to find a good way through this, wherever it leads."

"Whether I regain my strength or the disease stops spreading, who knows? Maybe I'll live for 25 more years, but can't use my arms and hands. That's fine, too. I'll make do. I've done a lot of living in my first 40 years. There's certainly no regrets there."

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There is no known cure for ALS, a progressive, fatal neurodegenerative disease caused by the degeneration of motor neutrons, the nerve cells in the central nervous system that control voluntary muscle movement. The disorder causes muscle weakness and atrophy throughout the body. Unable to function, the muscles gradually weaken until they cease to function.

Turner was handed what is tantamount to a delayed death sentence - some of the specialists who examined Turner gave him no more than 2 to 3 years to live.

It is possible, of course, that Turner was afflicted with ALS on the basis of random selection - horrible luck. One or two people out of 100,000 in the general population develop ALS every year, most of those stricken being 40 to 60 years of age. Not all of those diagnosed, of course, are football players who use their heads, as Turner describes, as the "tip of the spear."

But the NFL's increased concern about concussions and their long-term effects is worth noting, as is mounting medical evidence that professional and even college players are far more susceptible to eventual neurological problems, including the onset of ALS. A recent study explored a possible link between contact sports, such as football, and an ALS-type illness linked to head trauma.

The Boston Globe reported that Turner is the 14th former NFL player to be diagnosed with ALS since 1960, a much higher rate than occurs in most adult males.

McCluskey said there is no way to determine if ALS diagnosed in football players or former football players is directly attributable to game-related head trauma.

"When I retired [in 1999], they told me I had the spinal column of a 65-year-old man," Turner said. "Any other fullback or linebacker probably has heard the same thing.

"The studies that have come out would seem to indicate that playing football over a period of time can lead to more of certain types of injuries. I think I've always known that. The type of collisions you're involved in . . . it's a different type than you get at other positions.

"Fullbacks and linebackers are taking hits in a way that linemen don't, although I would never take anything from anyone on the field. Everybody is going to get hurt at some point. That's just the nature of the game. But fullbacks have to get low and stick their heads in there. You're leading the way at the point of attack. You're the first one in and you've got to go in hard. You're going in with a head of steam, with a running start because you have to dig somebody out of the hole."

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Turner was recently honored in his hometown of Prattville, Ala., at a dinner attended by a number of his former teammates and coaches at the University of Alabama, including running back Siran Stacy, who also has known his share of tragedy. Stacy - a former Eagle - lost his wife and four of his five children in a 2007 automobile accident. It would be difficult to say which player is more admiring of the other.

"It breaks your heart," Stacy said of what Turner is facing. "This is our brother, our friend."

For his part, Turner said Stacy has provided a standard to help him live each day as it comes.

"Siran was a different guy in college," Turner said. "I'm not saying he was a bad guy, but he's made a remarkable transformation in his life - even before the car wreck happened. I'm a Christian man, but he is a testament that there is a God. He's doing such good things in his life, and for his daughter that survived, it's an inspiration to me. It's unbelievable that you could lose your wife and four of your kids in the blink of an eye and somehow manage to keep it together."

Such is the fellowship of the locker room, where bonds are formed that frequently extend beyond the limits of playing careers. To be a "good teammate" is the ultimate compliment, one that often transcends the scope of normal friendship. And Kevin Turner was a very good teammate.

"Kevin was the consummate professional," said Juan Castillo, the Eagles' offensive line coach who has kept in regular contact with Turner since his NFL career ended. "We still talk about the good times. Anybody who's ever been around the guy had to like him. KT is the kind of person you'd want your son to grow up to be, the kind of person you'd want your daughter to marry. He's a better person than he was a football player, and he was a very good football player.

"You know, I talked to him about a week-and-a-half ago. He didn't mention his being sick, not once. To this day, he has never brought that up to me. Even after I found out, I thought it best if he was the one to mention it first. But he always talked as if there was nothing wrong with him.

"That's just the kind of guy he is. He never complained about anything when he was with the team. Even with something this big, he wouldn't want anybody feeling sorry for him."

Turner's natural stoicism and reticence aside, he understands that his illness affords him a platform to address certain issues. He is speaking out on some of those issues, albeit reluctantly, in the hope that current and future players might be spared the ordeal that has dramatically changed his life.

"We're going to get a foundation started," he said. "We're going to raise awareness of ALS, of spinal-cord injuries, of brain trauma. The people who will be involved will get it done, and done in a way that really makes an impact.

"As football players, we need to know what we can do to protect ourselves. There's a lot of things you can find out about a man on the football field. I don't mean for this to sound like a cliché, but you find out how someone is going to react when things are going your way, and when they're not.

"If I knew then what I know now, would I still have played football? Yeah, I would. NFL players get paid good money, but that's not the reason they start playing. That's not the reason they rose to that level. They made it to the top because they loved what they were doing."

But Turner said, if he could go back in time, he'd love the sport by playing it a slightly different way, one that would presumably reduce the head-related injuries that have become the NFL's not-so-hidden curse.

"When you're 25 and playing in the NFL, you kind of feel invincible," he said. "Well, not really invincible, but you're living in the moment. The present is the only thing that counts. The future pretty much is confined to the next game you're going to play.

"I love the game of football. I love everything about it. I knew going in that there was a danger of paralysis, of tearing up your knee, your shoulder, whatever. It's not likely, but possible. But this ALS thing . . . it's not something I ever considered. Now I see that the damage doesn't come from one concussion. It's the repetitive nature of taking those kinds of hits year after year that cause problems. If I had to do it all over, the one thing I would do different is maybe go in low on linebackers more often, do a little more cutting and less straight-up, 'iso' blocking.

"With my size [6-1, 230] and [lack of] athletic ability, I probably shouldn't have been playing fullback in the NFL. I guess I was dumb enough to ram myself in there all those times. Look, I don't question why this happened to me. But maybe because it did happen to me, some good can come out of it for other players."

Exacerbating Turner's situation is the fact that he's broke, or nearly so, the money he made in the NFL lost in a speculative real-estate deal gone bad. He also is separated from his wife, who has custody of the couple's three children.

What buoys Turner is the support of people who have rallied around him, some of whom he never got to meet. They are the fans who loved his work ethic, his penchant for getting his jersey dirty.

"I got an e-mail about a month ago," he said. "It was from someone in Philly just sending me good wishes. He said, at the time I was playing, his 10-year-old son was just beginning to watch football and that I was his favorite player. That just blew me away. I wasn't a superstar; I was more of a journeyman.

"You can't truly get a sense of the people you touch a lot of the time when you're someone like me. I shot the man an e-mail back to say I thank him and his son more than they can ever know."

Turner has never attended a game at Lincoln Financial Field, but he hopes to be in the house on Nov. 7, with sons Nolan, 13, and Cole, 7, when the Eagles host the Indianapolis Colts.

"I want them to experience the atmosphere, the passion, of football in Philly," he said. "It really is something special. I feel so fortunate to have been a part of that."

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